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The Iran Primer Blog: Contributions from Current and Former Wilson Center Experts

Below are pieces from current and former Wilson Center experts available on the Iran Primer blog website at

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A Case for U.S.-Iran Diplomacy July 5, 2011Interview with Roberto Toscano Semira N. Nikou Roberto Toscano served as Italy’s ambassador to Iran between 2003 and 2008. 

  • Along with five former European ambassadors to Iran, you wrote an open letter in June 2011 encouraging the United States and the European Union to engage Iran on its controversial nuclear program. Given the failure of diplomacy since 2003, what are the prospects of engagement--realistically?

Let me turn it around—what are the prospects of non-engagement? The strategies pursued until now are definitely not producing results. At the same time, centrifuges, doubts and tensions increase. The idea that prompted us former ambassadors to suggest a different approach was to see whether this stalemate can be overcome, and how. We should have two priorities in addressing the nuclear issue. One is to prevent conflict--preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which by itself is a threat to international security, and preventing conflict that might arise around proliferation issues. Second is to follow a policy that does not diminish, but increases, chances for a democratic Iran. On both counts, what we, the West, have done until now has been counterproductive. If you ask me about the chance of engagement now, I would stay it is slim. In 2003 and 2004…the position of the Unites States and Europeans was that Iran have zero centrifuges. The idea was, since you, Tehran, were a suspicious fellow, you had no more rights. But in international law, especially on non-proliferation, you need rules that are applicable to all. The assessment of the majority of experts—both technical and political--is that what Iran wants is threshold capacity—to arrive at a stage where it can produce a nuclear weapon if it wants to. The same situation Japan is in, for instance. We should prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons—and make its attainment of threshold capacity more difficult --by applying strategies that are realistic. There are several elements. One is to shift from the impossible goal of eliminating Iranian capability and instead increase control over Iran’s nuclear program. The shift would be from prohibition to enhanced controls. For instance, Iran had adopted the Additional Protocol from 2003-05. It did not ratify but still applied the protocols. The difference between the present system and the Additional Protocol is that now inspectors still inspect Natanz regularly, but they cannot go to undeclared sites. And of course, the real guarantee is when they can go to undeclared sites. But the Additional Protocol is not universally ratified—meaning, not all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have ratified it. So the Additional Protocol has to be a part of the negotiations. It cannot be imposed as a rule because it is not a universal rule. The nuclear issue has been singled out as being the only one of concern for us. There are many more—regional problems, Iranian policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan, etc. If you do not contextualize the nuclear issue…it will always be looked at as a zero-sum game.  Good diplomacy is when you give and take on a wider front…After all, I am not talking about a “grand bargain”—for which there are no conditions right now, especially given the recent regime and internal political situation—but at least an attempt to begin talking about the wide range of issues. In 2003, there was a letter sent … to the United States. Not only did the United States not reply, but it reproached the Swiss ambassador for having transmitted the proposal. It was a very basic, generic proposal…but somebody should have answered, asking the Iranians to be more explicit. At that time, the idea was different—that there was an unstoppable wave of democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein. 

  • What tangible steps can the United States and Europe take toward negotiations with Iran?

We have a prerequisite--which is unfortunately in the Security Council resolution--that enrichment should stop before negotiation [begins]. This is a bad idea because the result of a negotiation is required as a prerequisite to negotiations. It is very difficult to know how to get out of this. I am afraid we have painted ourselves into a corner. 

  • How has Iran’s political crisis affected the regime’s interest or position in negotiations on nuclear issues?

There is a common interest in not damaging the system—because in that case all in the regime would go under. But things could get out of control because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is reckless. The political confrontation between the supreme leader and the president is…not on whether the nuclear program should be maintained, but on how. The impression is that the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei gang would be more innovative—(Esfandiar Rahim Mashei is Ahmadinejad’s controversial chief of staff.) The supreme leader is more of the status quo. We do not know what exactly others want, but they are probably more willing to change. Having said that, there is no way that Ahmadinejad can prevail over the supreme leader, so this is all very theoretical. The nuclear negotiations have changed several times…So the West should prove to be more imaginative—to test, provoke, and challenge. We should not let the status quo just lie there because it is festering; it can go wrong—also by mistake. I am afraid if we do not do something to address those issues, starting with the nuclear but not only the nuclear, conflict could arise out of carelessness, mistake. Just accidents. 

  • Since 2009, the Obama administration has gradually shifted from a policy of engagement to heightened pressure through sanctions on human rights and nuclear issues. How do sanctions affect the chances of future negotiations between the two countries?

The first problem is a sort of disconnect between the political dynamics in the two countries. I have no doubt that if Obama had been president at the same time as Khatami, something would have happened. You do not have to overestimate your adversary. George F. Kennan had it right: You prevent your adversary—in his case the Soviet Union-- from shifting the competition with you onto a military field. From then on, you just have to let everything else play—your economy, open society, culture. The Soviet Union was not invaded, was not bombed, not isolated—and it was the Soviet Union! You mean that Iran is more powerful than the Soviet Union? So why see this Iran as a devilish, all-powerful system that you either destroy or it will destroy you. Iran is not capable of even a match with Israel. Everyone is talking about the possible nuclear weapons in the future of Iran when Israel already has them. 

  • Do you distinguish between human rights sanctions and those against Iran’s nuclear program?

Yes. The difference is not in the effect of sanctions but their political significance. They have a different tag and political impact…People who want democracy in Iran have welcomed sanctions against human rights violators. As far as sanctions against the nuclear program, Iranians—even democratic Iranians—are not so unified in approving them because of nationalism and because they think it is legitimate for the country to develop a nuclear energy program under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The idea of saying that since we [the West] do not trust you [Iran] the normal rules do not apply, is hard to sell—not only to the regime but also to the people. Read Roberto Toscano’s interview on the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights for Iran.

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Iran's deepening internal battle June 6, 2011Farideh Farhi

  • Two years after his controversial re-election, President Ahmadinejad faces mounting pressure from the supreme leader, parliament and the Guardian Council on several issues. Is his presidency really in jeopardy?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may or may not survive his second term. His political fate will depend on whether he continues to try to shift political power towards his office and coterie of loyalists in ways that challenge both the supreme leader and the predominantly conservative parliament. Tensions became public when Ahmadinejad fired the intelligence minister in April, only to have Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reinstate him. During the crisis, Ahmadinejad did not show up for work or key cabinet meetings for 11 days. Khamenei refused to coax or woo the president to return to office. Indeed, he even initially signaled his willingness to let Ahmadinejad resign for refusing his dictates, despite the potential political costs to the regime. The same tensions are likely to play out for the remainder of Ahmadinejad's term. Khamenei apparently now wants the embattled president to serve out the final two years of his term, according to parliament's deputy speaker Mohammad-Reza Bahonar. Ahmadinejad also will no longer have the supreme leader’s protection in political showdowns with the judiciary, parliament or Guardian Council. As a result, all three institutions have more aggressively challenged the president’s recent actions, including cabinet appointments, merging ministries or disbursement of state funds. Ahmadinejad’s future will depend on whether he persists in doing political battle or  agrees to serve as a weakened lame-duck. 

  • Supreme Leader Khamenei staked his own leadership on support for Ahmadinejad after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Has Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad changed—and if so, how much and to what end?

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s union has always been a temporary marriage. For several reasons, Khamenei believed that an Ahmadinejad loss in the 2009 election would be construed at home and abroad as a setback for the supreme leader’s office.  Khamenei had long been concerned about “dual governance,” or the rivalry between the presidency and supreme leader in defining the national agenda. It was a particularly sensitive issue in 2009, when Iran was preparing for talks with a new U.S. administration.  Like Ahmadinejad, Khamenei stands for an aggressive foreign policy in contrast to former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who flirted with rapprochement to reduce tensions with the outside world. But Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad’s re-election backfired. When millions took to the streets to protest alleged election fraud, the focus was as much on the supreme leader as the president. Khamenei also took much of the blame for the repression that followed. Ahmadinejad and his inner circle used the crackdown to try to expand their hold over government—always assuming that the supreme leader would have to side with them.  But they miscalculated. Ahmadinejad’s decision not to show up for work particularly crossed a red line. Khamenei’s then signaled that Ahmadinejad was dispensable, which was sufficient to undercut the president’s support among many of the regime’s true believers. 

  • What are the risks or benefits for either Khamenei or the regime in challenging Ahmadinejad ?

Ahmadeinjad was perceived as challenging Khamenei and not the other way around. The leader’s occasional intervention in government affairs is routine. So Khamenei’s reinstatement of Minister of Intelligence Heidar Moslehi was never questioned by regime loyalists. It was Ahmadinejad’s refusal to go to work that was perceived as a challenge to Khamenei’s authority. Khamenei made clear that the move was unacceptable and that he was willing to accept the cost of political turmoil resulting from Ahmadinejad’s resignation. This was the game changer. 

  • On May 25, 2011, parliament voted to investigate the Ahmadinejad government’s alleged vote-buying—reportedly $80 each for 9 million people—during the 2009 election. The opposition Green Movement made similar allegations after the election but was ignored. Why is parliament acting now—and to what end?

The move is as much to preempt future corruption as to deal with past fraud. Parliamentary elections are due in March 2012. Ahmadinejad’s conservative opponents have expressed concern that Ahmadinejad and his allies will use state resources to buy votes. So the parliamentary investigation is a threat. It is still unclear whether the final report will be read in parliament or will lead to further action, such as calls for Ahmadinejad’s impeachment. As of now, it appears largely an attempt to further clip Ahmadinejad’s wings. Parliament has been complaining about Ahmadinejad's general financial mismanagement for years. Its auditing branch has detailed lists of missing funds or funds used without parliamentary authorization. But there was little follow-up, Khamenei often stepped in and told the parliament not to create too many obstacles for the executive branch. Ahmadinejad’s fall from grace has given his conservative competitors room to maneuver. They are talking about organizing a supervisory committee to prevent fraud in the upcoming elections, although they face obstacles. In any oil-rich state, the executive branch has discretionary funds to play with during elections, particularly in the provinces where governor-generals and governors are appointed by the president. Many of Ahmadinejad’s conservative competitors also do not have sufficient support or funding to challenge government-supported candidates. 

  • On May 20, the 12-man Guardian Council ruled that Ahmadinejad could not take over the oil ministry. On June 1, parliament voted overwhelmingly —165 of the 198 members present—to refer Ahmadinejad to the judiciary for illegally attempting to take over the oil ministry. What are the potential consequences of these two actions?

Again this was a threat, and on the surface it worked. Ahmadinejad responded by appointing a caretaker for the Petroleum Ministry. Yet the appointment exemplified how the president is countering pressures on what he considers executive power. He named Mohammad Ali-Abadi, a former vice-president and head of Olympics Committee of Iran. A civil engineer, he has no experience in the oil industry. Parliament had earlier rejected him for the smaller Energy Ministry. Ali-Abadi, an Ahmadinejad loyalist, is likely to continue the management changes in ministry that expand the president’s control over the National Iranian Oil Company, the real cash cow in Iran. The caretaker appointment mollified the legal challenge but Ahmadinejad demonstrated his disdain for parliament even as he responded to its pressure. And the current battle is just the beginning of the conflict. Ali-abadi is unlikely to be approved as petroleum minister after his three months as caretaker is up. Ahmadinejad’s government has also approved the merger of the energy and petroleum ministries. Parliament may well try to block the unpopular merger. Ahmadinejad’s refusal to follow parliamentary mandates could create a legal basis for another parliamentary referral to the judiciary. Parliament’s committee on Article 90, which deals with violations by any government branch, has also referred Ahmadinejad to the judiciary for three other violations: his refusal to establish a sports and youth ministry as mandated by legislation; his refusal to disburse money for the metro system; and the government’s failure to produce an article of association for the Petroleum Ministry. In theory, any of these violations could become the basis for questioning in parliament and even impeachment. 

  • How is Ahmadinejad responding to the mounting pressure?

As the Ali-Abadi example shows, Ahmadinejad is not a man who gives up easily. As president, he still has many resources at his disposal. He also believes he has a strong base of popular support, which is increasingly doubtful. He was publicly booed at his speech on the June 4 anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah's Khomeini’s death. Still Ahmadinejad is known to be a shrewd political tactician, and few politicians in the governing circle are thinking beyond short-term political goals. If he is going to be pushed around, he is likely to try to make everyone else suffer as well. 

  • What is Khamenei’s situation?

The supreme leader still has the most control over Iran’s political future and direction.  Yet his plan in 2009 to engineer an election in which Ahmadinejad would legitimately win a popular election backfired. He had explicitly asked former President Khatami not to run out of concern about his popularity. He also signaled that former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi should be allowed to run, calculating that an uncharismatic and long-forgotten former prime minister would not be a real challenge. Irrespective of who really won the election, Mousavi and his popular wife generated far more support than the supreme leader counted on. The post-election protests also affected the internal balance of power. Various security forces were emboldened. And every-day running the country grew more complicated, especially with a highly polarizing president unable to work with other branches of government.  In just one example, the fate of eight ministries--out of a total of 21--is in doubt because of uncertainty about whether they will be (or even already have been) merged and who will lead them. Parliament, which insists it controls government restructuring, has in turn come up with unusual mergers of its own—including merge of the ministries of roads and transportation, housing, and communications and information technology.  Given the administrative chaos, Khamenei and his office are now increasingly involved in day-to-day government administration. With parliamentary elections due in 2012 and a presidential election due in 2013, the supreme leader apparently hopes to orchestrate polls that produce less combative figures to take the government’s helm. But the circle of true loyalists has shrunk considerably since the 2009 vote, the subsequent purge of reformists, and now the pressure on Ahmadinejad and his allies. Managing both the country and upcoming elections in a highly polarized political environment is a daunting challenge. Read Farideh Farhi's chapter on the parliament in "The Iran Primer"  Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.   

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Growing World Pressure Over Iran's Human Rights Record March 27, 2011Robin Wright           The U.N. decision to appoint an investigator to track Iran’s human rights violations is the latest move by the international community to increase pressure on Tehran. The resolution follows a report by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in which he said he was “deeply troubled by reports of increased executions, amputations, arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trials, and possible torture and ill-treatment of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and opposition activists.”            The move also reflects the growing U.N. and U.S. focus on human rights abuses, expanding world attention beyond the standoff over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which has shaped most U.N. actions since 2006. The resolution notes the Islamic Republic’s refusal to cooperate on human rights issues and calls on Tehran to allow the investigator to have full and open access during visits.             The decision was taken by the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva, on March 24. The initiative was co-sponsored by the United States and Sweden. The proposal passed 22 to 7, with 14 nations abstaining. The appointment of an official rapporteur is expected in May or June.             Iranian officials reacted swiftly and angrily to the U.N. council’s decision, while Western officials have welcomed the vote as a means of holding the Islamic Republic accountable for its actions. Iran Ramin Mehmanparast, Foreign Ministry spokesman             "The passage of the anti-Iranian resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council cannot be justified. It is politically motivated…The objective behind this resolution was to... divert attention from human rights abuses in the West, specifically in the United States…U.S. policies both in deeds and words have always been paradoxical and predicated on double standards." March 25, 2011 Hassan Norouzi, member of parliament            “By issuing this resolution, those who claim [to be the advocates of] human rights want to deflect world public opinion from the crimes committed in Libya, Bahrain and other Islamic countries.” March 26, 2011 Seyyed Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi, U.N. Ambassador            "U.S. soldiers kill civilians in Afghanistan and take memorial photos [over] their corpses…"[The United States has] secret detention centers in various parts of the world and humiliating and torturing detainees…The Islamic Republic of Iran has always manifested its sincere commitment to the promotion of human rights at the national and international levels."
 Sa'dollah Nassiri Qeidari, member of parliament            “Given the situation in the region and the awakening of the people of Islamic countries, hegemonic powers such as the U.S., Britain and France are trying to use such political and biased resolutions to tarnish the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” March 26, 2011 Western officials  Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State            This is the first new country mandate established since the Human Rights Council was formed in 2006…Independent investigation and reporting by the Special Rapporteur will help the international community responsibly address the serious human rights abuses in Iran. It will also give voice to the many Iranians who long not only for reform, but for their government to respect their most basic of human rights and freedoms. March 24, 2011  Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor             The decision by the Council represents a historic milestone that reaffirms the global consensus and alarm about the dismal state of human rights in Iran. Iranian authorities are perpetrating a wide variety of abuses against a broad spectrum of Iranians, irrespective of age, gender, faith, or profession…The Iranian Government has a responsibility to protect its citizens and allow its people’s voices to be heard.  The United States will continue to speak out on behalf of all those brave Iranians struggling for their universal rights. March 24, 2011 William Hague, Britain's Foreign Secretary            "[There has been an] an unacceptable deterioration [in human rights in Iran. The new U.N. investigator could] provide encouragement to the many Iranians who bravely continue to speak up for their rights and the rights of others…[Since the 2009 elections, Iranian authorities] have systematically sought to silence all dissenting voices, through detaining and harassing human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and most recently opposition leaders [Mir Hossein] Mousavi and [Mehdi] Karroubi." March 24, 2011  Read Robin Wright's chapter on the challenge of Iran in “The Iran Primer”

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Russia Balks at New Pressure on Iran
March 16, 2011

Mark N. Katz
After a year of cooperation on Iran, Russia now opposes new sanctions or other tough measures to pressure Tehran on its controversial nuclear program. The failure of recent diplomacy to get Iran to comply with U.N. resolutions, and reassure the world that it is not secretly trying to build a bomb, has triggered growing questions about what the international community should do next. Moscow now appears to be a major obstacle in forging a united position.

The Obama administration "reset" Russian-American relations shortly after taking office in 2009, in part to win Moscow's support on Iran. The diplomatic initiative appeared to be working well in 2010. Russia was one of six major powers--along with Britain, China, France, Germany and the United States--that collaborated on both diplomacy and a new U.N. sanctions resolution. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also announced that Russia would not ship S-300 air defense missile systems to Tehran--even after Iran paid for them.

But in 2011, Russia is now urging restraint on new punitive measures against Tehran. Moscow's unwillingness to pressure Iran any further is taking Kremlin policy back to the pre-reset days. Medvedev has also questioned Western intelligence assessments about Iran's nuclear program. Reverting to Russia's earlier position, he said there is no proof that Tehran seeks to acquire the world's deadliest weapons. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has even suggested that the time has come to ease sanctions.

Two developments may have contributed to Russia's policy shift. The first was the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as "New START." For Moscow, the New START treaty was a high priority. With Russia not modernizing its nuclear weapons arsenal as fast as the United States, Moscow was desperate to get Washington to agree to the limits imposed by New START. Moscow would have been unable to match the American strategic nuclear arsenal without a pact. Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the treaty in April 2010, but Senate ratification was in doubt over Republican concerns about Russia's 2008 war with Georgia, support for Iran, and other issues. After Senate ratification in December 2010, Moscow's incentive to appease the Republican minority decreased--at least for now.

The second factor is related to the democratic uprisings across the Middle East in 2011. Moscow did not seem concerned by Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution in January. Nor was it unduly upset by the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. But when serious opposition to the regime of Moammar Qaddafi erupted in Libya, Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin began opposing the Middle East upheavals. Medvedev even suggested that the uprisings were instigated to trigger similar upheavals in Russia and even to break up the Russian federation.

Moscow has also publicly backed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite the Green Movement protests launched after the disputed presidential election in 2009. Indeed, Russia was the first major power to publicly congratulate President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his reelection. Moscow had no interest in backing a democratic movement in Iran then or now.

Moscow's inconsistent positions--tolerance of democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt but opposition to uprisings in Libya and Iran--is due to their differing geopolitical impacts on Russia. The autocratic regimes ousted in Tunisia and Egypt had been closely allied to the United States. New governments may maintain those ties, but opening up political and economic systems could also provide new diplomatic and business opportunities for Russia. Libya, however, is a different story. Qaddafi's relations with the United States have improved since 2003, but Russia's relations have long been much stronger. A democratic revolution in Libya could decrease Russian influence in Tripoli--and further improve America's position in this large oil-rich country.

Russia is particularly concerned about an uprising in Tehran that could lead to rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Russian analysts have long been concerned that a geopolitical shift in Iran could crowd out Russian businesses and lead the United States to work with Iran on provide an alternative to Russia as an export route for Caspian Basin oil and gas.

In this context, Moscow's support for the autocratic regime in Tehran--and its opposition to new sanctions--are not surprising. And neither position appears likely to change in the near future.

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Rafsanjani Dislodged From a Top Job
March 9, 2011

Farideh Farhi

* Iran's Assembly of Experts voted March 8 to replace former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the chairmanship. What happened and why is the outcome significant?

On March 8, the Assembly of Experts, effectively pushed former President Rafsanjani from the leadership of a top clerical body and replaced him with an ailing and elderly conservative. This is the latest setback for a man long considered to be one of Iran's most resilient politicians. He lost the 2005 presidential contest to current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as the 2004 parliamentary (majlis) election. He and his family have also been under increasing pressure since unrest erupted after the disputed 2009 presidential vote because he did not take a clear stance against the opposition Green Movement.

The Assembly of Experts is a pivotal body with constitutional authority to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, the most powerful position in Iran. Rafsanjani was first elected chairman in 2007 and reelected in 2009.

The election of conservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani returns the leadership of the Assembly to an elderly cleric with a political profile, the tradition before Rafsanjani's election in 2007. But the leadership issue could soon rise again. Mahdavi Kani, 79, was reportedly brought into the chamber in a wheelchair.

Mahdavi Kani had not sought the chairmanship. He agreed to run only under tremendous pressure, which led Rafsanjani to withdraw his name as a candidate. In his speech to the Assembly, Rafsanjani said that he had asked Mahdavi Kani to run as chairman in 2009 and 2011 but the latter had refused due to illness and old age. In the end, Mahdavi Kani ran unopposed.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clearly played a background role. Without his pressure, Mahdavi Kani would not have run.

* Why did hardliners replace Rafsanjani, a pivotal political player since the 1979 Revolution? Had Rafsanjani's chairmanship changed the Assembly of Experts?

Rafsanjani was elected chairman in 2007 after the death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini, who had led the Assembly since its inception in 1983. Rafsanjani's election was the result of the first real contest for the post. He beat hard-line Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Guardian Council. The vote was close in 2007 but hard-line clerics were unable to block Rafsanjani's chairmanship and in 2009 he was reelected decisively.

The hardliners' public push to replace Rafsanjani and support Mahdavi Kani reflects two things:

* First, it relays the message that trying to stand in the middle of Iran's polarized political environment to moderate political cleavages is no longer acceptable—and will lead to sidelining if not a complete purge. Rafsanjani had not taken a clear position on the 2009 unrest. While publicly asserting his loyalty to Khamenei, he nevertheless continued to stand by his call for a more open political system and the need to redress some of the issues that prompted post-election protests.

* Second, hardliners were unable to win with a candidate of their own so they pressured a traditional conservative to head the body—at least temporarily.

Some Iranians had hoped Rafsanjani's leadership of the Assembly would make the body more powerful in overseeing the conduct of the Supreme Leader, but he was not able to alter its operations or tone. Nor was there much change in the assembly's routine statements of support for the leader at biannual meetings.

Rafsanjani has been critical of the country's direction since the 2009 election, but he also made clear that he speaks only for himself, something he will continue to do irrespective of his loss of the chairmanship. He remains chairman of the Expediency Council, a body that mediates between parliament and the Guardian Council. In his speech to the Assembly on March 8, he criticized those who "think that they can solve problems with words and titles" and are also "trying to imprison the leader in one current." Acknowledging that they "may benefit in the short run," he nevertheless insisted that "by doing this they will harm the country, system, and even themselves in the long-run."

* What is the Assembly of Experts? How many members does it have and how are they chosen? How often do they meet?

The Assembly of Experts for the Leadership is currently a body of more than eighty scholars of Islamic Law; the number has diminished due to deaths after the last election in 2006. Members are elected by direct public vote for eight-year terms from 30 electoral districts (provinces). Candidates do not need to be residents of or even to be born in the province from which they are elected. Although it did not begin this way, the Guardian Council must approve candidates' eligibility through written and oral examinations if their religious credentials are "not evident" or "explicitly or implicitly approved by the Supreme Leader."

Its bylaws require that the Assembly meet twice a year. Sessions are usually two days long but minutes of meetings are confidential. Assembly members are not restricted in their engagement with other occupations, such as membership in parliament or the judiciary. As a result, several members have also served in other branches of government.

Organizationally, the Assembly has a leadership and six committees. The leadership is elected by secret ballot for two years and consists of the Assembly's chair, two vice-chairs, two secretaries, and two assistants.

* Has the Assembly of Experts ever criticized or challenged the supreme leader for anything?

In the Constitution, the Assembly is tasked with two functions:

* Selecting the leader

* Dismissing him if he is unable to perform his constitutional duties or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the initial qualifications such as "social and political wisdom, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership."

In its bylaws, the Assembly is tasked to supervise the leader's capabilities to determine whether he is able to perform his duties. It also has a committee to oversee "the continuation of qualifications for the leader specified in the constitution." But the bylaws also state that the Assembly does not see this supervision to be "in contradiction to absolute guardianship." So legally, the mandate is ambiguous about how much the Assembly can challenge the leader about his actions or conduct if he does not show signs of incapacity or lacks qualifications. In practice, the Assembly has never challenged or criticized the leader, although individual members have expressed their concerns about the country's direction. Given the Guardian Council's vetting process since 1991, the majority of the Assembly's members have effectively been vetted before they run to ensure they are committed followers of the leader and not interested in a more dynamic supervisory role.

* What role does the Assembly of Experts play in Iranian politics today? How does its role compare to what was envisioned in the post-revolutionary constitution?

The Assembly of Experts was envisioned to be an elected clerical body that acts as a check on the leader in case of mental or physical incapacitation or deterioration. It is also tasked with the responsibility of choosing the leader in case of incapacitation or death. As such, it is designed to become a very important body during periods of transition as it did in 1989 when the then Hojattoleslam Ali Khamenei was quickly chosen as the leader after the sudden death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

After the June 2009 presidential election, some Iranians hoped that the Assembly would make an effort to question decisions made by Ayatollah Khamenei that have moved the country towards increased authoritarianism. But the body has never tried to check Khamenei's decisions.

* What are the political views of the Assembly of Experts' members in the Islamic Republic?

The assembly was not designed to reflect political views, although members have different political tendencies. Because of the vetting process and written examinations, most high-ranking clerics from the reformist camp have either been disqualified or refused to take part in a vetting process. The Assembly is currently divided largely between traditional and hard-line conservatives, with traditional conservatives still in the majority. The internal balance of power is why only a senior conservative figure such as Mahdavi Kani could dislodge Rafsanjani at this time.

Mahdavi Kani heads the Combatant Clergy Association. He is also in the founder and current head of Imam Sadegh University in Tehran, a university specializing in humanities. It is also a training ground for many government officials. He also served as interim prime Minister in 1981.

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U.N. reports new information on Iran's nuclear program
February 25, 2011

Michael Adler
The United Nations has obtained new information that Iran may have worked on making nuclear weapons, according to a report distributed in Vienna February 25. Its nuclear watchdog agency also said Iran appears to have overcome setbacks from the Stuxnet cyber-virus that set back its enrichment of uranium, a fuel used for both peaceful nuclear energy and to make a bomb.

The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency may increase international concern about the Iran's controversial program. It also may spur calls for tougher sanctions if diplomatic negotiations with the Islamic Republic remain stalled.

The report shows how Iran has continued to stonewall an IAEA investigation. Tehran claims it only wants to generate electricity from nuclear power rather than make a bomb and has reduced cooperation with the IAEA since facing UN sanctions.

But the IAEA has "new information recently received" which leads to "further concerns (about military-related nuclear work)," the agency said. It did not provide specifics.

Since 2003, following revelations about secret Iranian nuclear work, the IAEA has investigated possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. Since 2005, the watchdog agency has been looking into documents, allegedly from Iran, that detail research on how to explode an atomic bomb and how to fit a nuclear weapon on top of a missile.

Iran rejects these documents as forgeries by foreign intelligence agencies. But the new IAEA report said that Iran has still not provided answers to questions raised by the documents and has in fact has not responded on this issue since August 2008. Iran "is not engaging with the Agency … on … the allegation that Iran is developing a nuclear payload for its missile program," the new report said.

The United States has reportedly completed a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that expresses concern that Iran has resumed nuclear weaponization work broken off in 2003, when the Islamic Republic feared possible military action after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

A senior diplomat in Vienna told reporters that the most recent IAEA information gave "a better picture of what happened before 2003. And it provides information on what happened after 2003, and this is of course of concern to us. And we need to engage Iran on that."

The U.S. estimate reportedly concludes that Iran has continued its suspension of most of the weaponization work halted in 2003. U.S. intelligence officials reportedly believe that Iran is riven by a debate over whether to move more decisively towards making a bomb or to keep the nuclear program to the goal of developing electricity from atomic power.

The IAEA said that Iran continues to develop its ability to enrich uranium. It said Iran had produced 3,606 kilograms of low-enriched uranium as of February 5. This is uranium enriched enough for nuclear power but not for weapons. But the same amount of uranium could also be enriched further to make two bombs.

Iran appears to have recovered from a cyber-attack on its Natanz enrichment plant, the report concludes. It now has a total of 5,184 centrifuges enriching uranium; the total had dropped by about 1,000 about 18 months ago. The Stuxnet virus, which some reports claim may have been planted by the United States or Israel, is believed responsible for incapacitating a large number of centrifuges.

The IAEA also reported that Iran is making larger amounts of more highly enriched uranium. It has so far produced 43.6 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which it says it needs to fuel a research reactor that produces isotopes for medical purposes. Iran began doing this after a U.S.-backed fuel swap deal with France and Russia broke down in late 2009. However, the United States fears Iran is using this as a pretext to move closer to weapon-grade uranium, which requires an enrichment level of over 90 percent.

Meanwhile, Iran said it will begin feeding nuclear material into centrifuges at a second enrichment site, the Fordow plant, by summer. In the near future, it also plans on testing full cascade lines of more sophisticated centrifuges at a pilot plant at Natanz.

The new developments indicate that Iran is making progress on uranium enrichment despite the cyber-attack and international sanctions. Tehran is also increasingly defiant of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend the strategic enrichment process. In addition, Iran continues to balk at providing information about other aspects of its nuclear work, such as questions about the new Fordow plant. And it has denied full access to a heavy-water reactor under construction which could eventually produce large amounts of plutonium, another possible nuclear bomb material.

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New U.S. Sanctions on Iran for human rights abuses
February 24, 2011

Robin Wright
The United States imposed new sanctions on two top Iranian officials for engaging in "serious human rights abuses" since the disputed 2009 election. In a striking run of statements on February 23, the White House, State Department and Treasury Department issued three separate condemnations about Iranian government behavior against its citizens. Together, the three statements represented some of the toughest language from Washington since the election that resulted in a second term for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The latest move also reflects the growing momentum behind the Obama administration's human rights posture throughout the Middle East. "The historic events unfolding in the Middle East underscore the importance of protecting human rights around the world, which all nations have a responsibility to uphold," the White House said in a statement following announcement of new sanctions.

"As President Obama has said, human rights are a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity for the United States. The people of Iran should be able to express their opinions and their grievances without fear of reprisal from their government. The United States reaffirms its support to all those in Iran and around the world who are struggling to have their voices heard and rights respected. We continue to call upon the Iranian government to respect the rights of its people and we will continue to hold accountable those who infringe upon those universal rights.

The Treasury Department specifically named prosecutor general Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi and Basij commander Mohammed Reza Naqdi. The Basij are a paramilitary force used for both domestic and national security issues. Its members beat back protesters after the 2009 election and tens of thousands volunteered to fight during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

"Today's action underscores our enduring commitment to support Iranians seeking to exercise their universal rights and expresses our solidarity with victims of torture, persecution, and arbitrary detention," said State Department Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner in a statement from the Treasury Department outlining the new punitive measures.

In its statement, the White House said that both men will be subject to financial sanctions and visa ineligibilities under U.S. law. It also noted that the names are "not exhaustive and will continue to grow" as events unfold in Iran and additional information becomes available.

The new sanctions are based on a White House executive order signed in September 2010. The Treasury Department identified the role of the two key officials:

Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi : Appointed Tehran Prosecutor General in August 2009. His office has indicted a large number of protesters and charged many with Muharebeh, or enmity against God, which carries a death sentence. His office has also targeted and arrested reformists, human rights activists, and members of the media, as part of a broad crackdown on the political opposition.

Mohammed Reza Naqdi: Appointed Basij commander in October 2009. As commander of the IRGC's Basij Forces, Naqdi was responsible for or complicit in Basij abuses occurring in late 2009, including the violent response to the December 2009 Ashura Day protests, which resulted in up to 15 deaths and the arrests of hundreds of protesters. Naqdi had headed the Basij intelligence unit responsible for interrogating detainees during the post-election crackdown and was in charge of an interrogation team at the Kahrizak detention center. At least three demonstrators are reported to have died as a result of injuries sustained at the Kahrizak detention center.

Adam J. Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said "Dolatabadi and Naqdi have no place in the international financial system."

In the third statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton chastised the Iranian regime for cracking down on protests over the previous two weeks, the first since the post-election unrest. "Over the past ten days, we have witnessed the bravery of thousands of Iranians who once again took to the streets to exercise their fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and expression," she said in the statement. "It has been made clear to the world that Iran denies its citizens the same fundamental rights it continues to applaud elsewhere in the Middle East."

Clinton said that the United States is troubled by reports of the executions of dozens of prisoners during the first two months of 2011. She called on Iran to free all political prisoners and persecuted minorities.

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U.S. Gets Tougher on Iran
February 15, 2011

Robin Wright
The Obama administration has become increasingly outspoken about Iran since the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. The main focus has notably shifted from Iran's controversial nuclear program to issues of democracy and human rights abuses.

For the first time, the administration has taken the side of protesters, calling on Tehran to honor the people's right to free speech and peaceful assembly and condemning the latest repression. The flood of comments from the Obama administration on Iran—just since peaceful demonstrations forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 11—starkly contrasts with restrained language during six months of Iranian protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election.

Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sternly admonished Tehran for its brutality on February 14, when the Islamic Republic cracked down on tens of thousands of protesters who turned out in several Iranian cities.

The tougher U.S. language follows two rounds of unsuccessful diplomatic talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Negotiations in Geneva in December and Istanbul in January did not even produce an agreement on possible short-term measures to build confidence.

President Barack Obama press conference on February 15
"I find it ironic that you've got the Iran regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully."

"Your aspirations for greater opportunity, for the ability to speak your mind, for free press - those are aspirations we support, as was true in Egypt.

"We were clear then and we're clear now that what has been true in Egypt should be true in Iran. People should be able to express their opinion and their grievances and seek a more responsive government. What's been different is the Iranian government's response, which is to beat people and shoot people and arrest people.

"My hope and expectation is that we're going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedom and a more representative government."

"America cannot ultimately dictate what happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt, that ultimately these are sovereign countries that are going to have to make their own decisions."

"What we can do is lend moral support to those who are seeking a better life for themselves…You can't maintain power through coercion. At some level, in any society, there has to be consent."

About the entire Middle East, he added, "The world is changing…You have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity. ... You've got to get out ahead of change; you can't be behind the curve."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on February 14
"We are against violence and we would call to account the Iranian government that is once again using its security forces and resorting to violence to prevent the free expression of ideas from their own people."

"[Iranian officials are] more than happy to talk about look at what's going on in Egypt, but when their opposition, when their young people try to express themselves, they come down with brutality. They have a record of such abuse and excess. Contrast that with the Egyptian military. I would bet on the process that the Egyptian military has announced going forward as being a pathway to a different future, whereas I look with such dismay at what Iran continues to do and just feel – my heart goes out to the Iranian people."

Clinton's comments in reaction to comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that there will be a new Middle East with no place for the United States and Israel.
"I find it very ironic that Iran is trying to give lessons in democracy to anybody. Talk about a revolution that was hijacked; Iran is Exhibit A. What Iran is doing to its people, even as we speak, where there are protestors trying to have their voices heard in Iran who are being brutally suppressed by the Iranian security forces, I don't think anyone in the Middle East – or frankly, anyone in the world – would look to Iran as an example for them. That is not where anybody wants to end up, where you are basically in a military dictatorship with a kind of theocratic overlay which doesn't respond to the universal human rights of the Iranian people. So I don't think there's much to be learned or really in any way followed coming out of Iran when it comes to democracy."

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon on February 12
"By announcing that they will not allow opposition protests, the Iranian government has declared illegal for Iranians what it claimed was noble for Egyptians. We call on the government of Iran to allow the Iranian people the universal right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate and communicate that's being exercised in Cairo."February 12

Vice President Joe Biden on February 11
"I say to our Iranian friends: let your people march, let your people speak, release your people from jail, let them have a voice."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on February 11
"I think we have all seen reports that -- over the past many days that there -- those in Iran have and want to march and demonstrate peacefully. The government of Iran, again, has met those -- the concerns of its people with threatening to kill them. Again, I think it speaks volumes as to what -- it speaks volumes to the grip that they have, or lack thereof, on the popular beliefs of their own people."

"The Iranian government should allow the Iranian people to exercise the very same right of peaceful assembly and the ability to communicate their desires."

National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor on February 11
"The recent arrests [of opponents] and effort to block international media outlets underscores the hypocrisy of the Iranian leadership."

"For all of its empty talk about Egypt, the government of Iran should allow the Iranian people the same universal right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate and communicate in Tehran that the people are exercising in Cairo."

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A revolution's anniversary: Iran's creeping military rule
February 9, 2011

Shaul Bakhash

* Iran's revolution marks its anniversary on Feb. 11. What is the political situation in Iran today?

Iran marks the revolution's 32nd anniversary in dramatically altered circumstances. It emerged from the disputed 2009 presidential election as a far more militarized state. The commanders of the Revolutionary Guards now exercise influence in the principal seats of power. The security apparatus has grown more repressive. The government inclines towards a confrontational style in foreign policy. And while the regime remains firmly in control, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's populist style has opened fissures within the ruling establishment.

The Revolutionary Guards now have a much larger say in domestic and foreign policy, government jobs, and the economy since its Basij paramilitary wing played a principal role in crushing mass protests after the disputed elections, thereby saving the regime. Men closely associated with the Guards are prominent in the cabinet and in key government posts. Companies associated with the Guards get lucrative government contracts in the energy, construction and industrial sectors. The hand of Revolutionary Guards commanders, in collaboration with the Intelligence Ministry and their judicial cohorts, is also visible in the arrests, trials and executions that continue unabated.

* What forms has this crackdown taken?

Widespread arrests were followed by a televised show trial of over 100 prominent political figures and ordinary protesters. The aim is clearly to silence all dissent and warn would-be political activists about the harsh consequences of challenging the state. Recent individual trials have produced unusually harsh sentences:

* Nasrin Sotudeh, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to 11 years

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